A Backward GlanceChapter 11
You know, you'd think a person'd put flowers where he wanted 'em and then let 'em grow. That's what I always figured. Not Frank. He was always digging up something, moving something, cutting off something. I didn't understand the reason for it all, but I could run the shovel. So while I was living there, that's what I did.
I didn't mind digging. It was something you didn't have to spend too much time figuring out before you did it. Took my mind off other things.
And that's what I was doing that Saturday, while Frank was doing what he did, and telling me where to do what I did.
Ruby was sitting on the front porch, sipping on something tall and green, watching us sweat. I was hot, I woulda liked to take off my shirt, but I thought if I did, she'd probably watch me more. She was making me nervous enough as it was.
The sound of the gate opening didn't mean anything to me. I didn't pay attention. If I'da thought about it, I woulda figured it was just the milkman or somebody like that. So when he grabbed my shirt, pulled me around, and his fist connected with my face, it was a surprise. When he let go, I fell on the grass.
Krause was standing over me. Madder'n hell, like a bull snorting, just about. "You little punk," he said. "You little rat fink. I'll teach you to squeal on me."
He kicked me once before I could get outta the way, but that didn't seem like it satisfied him, so while I was trying to get up, he snarled and went for me and we both ended up on the ground, rolling around. I was younger and faster, but that didn't help me much unless I could get my feet under me. Krause was older, bigger, heavier. So Krause ended up on top.
I didn't know for sure what he thought I'd done, but whatever it was, he meant to kill me for it.
I heard screaming, didn't pay too much attention to it, 'cause I was trying to keep his fists from connecting, trying to get him off me. I woulda liked to punch him back, but it's hard to get any force behind your punches when you're laying on the ground. You can't pull your arm back far enough. You can't get much momentum. I managed to connect with his gut a few times, but Krause just kept going for my face.
I was getting hammered.
There was a dull clang. Krause stopped punching and slumped down on top of me. I looked up and Frank was standing over us with a spade raised up in the air, waiting to hit Krause with it again.
"I think you got him."
"He just walked up and started beating you," he said. "For no reason." He lowered the spade and then dropped it like it was something slimy. "Why? Why would someone do that?"
I coulda answered him better if I didn't have the bum still laying on top of me. Frank was no more help. He was standing there like it was him that got hit. It was Ruby who grabbed the unconscious Krause's arm and helped me roll him off. And then she ran in the house, said she was gonna call the cops.
"I hit him," Frank said.
"He could be dead."
"We ain't lucky enough for that," I said. "He's gonna wake up. And then he's really gonna wanna kill me."
He shook his head. "It's unbelievable. A stranger just attacking for no reason."
"That ain't a stranger. That's Krause."
Frank looked at him closer. "That's the man who brought you here that first day? I thought he seemed like a decent sort of person."
I tried to laugh at that one, but my ribs hurt and it came out sorta like a grunt. "He thinks I ratted him out. Gimme a hand here."
"Don't you think you should wait? We'll get an ambulance to take you to the hospital---"
"I don't need an ambulance." I managed to get up by myself, even though Frank was trying to convince me to stay down. "Nothing's broken. Nothing for them to fix up at the hospital that I can't do here." And I walked up the steps and into the house.
We were a little lucky-Krause didn't wake up again before the cops arrived. Frank talked to 'em, and told 'em what happened. They believed him; they didn't even need to talk to me.
We found out later that Krause had been arrested for taking bribes. Little bribes, now and then, for information he had access to at City Hall. Not something he woulda got a lot a' jail time for. So it was really stupid for him to come after me, considering where I lived. He'd be in jail a lot longer now.
Nobody ratted him out. The cops ran across the bribery thing by accident while they were investigating somebody a lot bigger than Krause. I knew the information he sold wasn't much compared to some of the other stuff he had going on the side, and I thought about ratting on him for real, so his sentence'd be even longer; but he had relatives. So I just kept my mouth shut. Hoped somebody'd tell him it wasn't me, so when he finally got out, he wouldn't come looking for me again.
It actually wasn't a big deal. Hardly worth remembering, except……when the cops asked Frank to go downtown and sign some papers……Ruby said for him to go; she said she'd take care of me.
I didn't find out about that until Ruby came in the bathroom, where I was standing in front of the mirror. "You poor thing," she said.
I was trying to wash the blood off my face without moving the flesh too much. Besides the general headache, a couple places hurt like a sonuvabitch. Cuts on your face hurt, and they always bleed a lot, but even though you look like you're bleeding to death, it ain't that bad.
Blood seems to do something to women. I don't know if they wanna make you better, or if they wanna give you something to remember before you die, or just what it is, but every woman I've ever known starts making over a man something fierce if he's bleeding.
I guess Ruby was no different than any other woman that way. She made me sit down on the toilet lid, and began fussing. She dabbed at the cuts I had mostly clean already, and then she got out the alcohol. I grabbed her wrist after she patted some of it above my eye. "It hurts enough as it is," I said.
She didn't argue, just put the stopper back in the bottle and set it aside.
She crouched down---she mighta been kneeling, I don't know---so she had to look up a little into my face. Stroked my cheek with the backs of her fingers. I was looking at her, smelling her perfume, something dark and heavy……and then the mint on her breath from the green drink she'd been sipping….she unbuttoned the top two buttons on my shirt.
"What're you doing?""
Have to make sure you're OK here, too, don't we?"
I thought afterwards there were lotsa things I coulda done…..but it didn't seem like it at the time. Couldn't think of anything. I let her unbutton my shirt, I think maybe I helped her. She slid her palms over my chest, I watched her hands, I started to breathe like I'd been running hard to get here.
The place on my ribs where Krause kicked me was beginning to change color already.
"Poor, poor boy," Ruby breathed. She pressed her lips to the cut on my cheekbone.
Damn. "Stop it." Dammit, dammit. "Frank might come up."
She looked at me for a long coupla minutes without saying anything. Then she tilted her head. "Frank's not here, honey. He went to the police station to sign a complaint." She smiled. "But that bothers you, doesn't it? About Frank?"
"Yes……I am. But it's ok. Frank doesn't care."
I musta looked skeptical.
"He doesn't. I give him whatever he wants…..whenever he wants it…..and after that he doesn't care what I do." She kissed my other cheek, let her tongue touch my skin there. I think all the air left my body, my eyes closed, my hand slid around her waist and I tried to pull her close. She resisted.
"I think it's the same with you," she said. "You go on these little masculine excursions with him, and help him with his silly flowers, and after that, why should he mind what you do?"
Then she was teasing my mouth, almost letting me taste her tongue, but not quite. I put my hand behind her head and went after it. She pulled away, put her fingers between my mouth and hers.
"You're in such a hurry. Slow down. It's better if it's slow."
"No, it's not."
She laughed. "Yes, it is."
And then she pushed away, and stood up. If I'da been a coyote, I think I'da howled. My whole body was beginning to hurt, and not because of Krause. It was from holding myself still when I wanted to go after her; my hands were clenched, my arms and legs were tight and hard, just because I couldn't do what I needed to do.
"You're playing with me," I said.
"Mmm-hmmm. And you like it."
I shook my head.
"Then tell me to stop." She began unbuttoning her own shirt, slow, standing in the doorway of the bathroom. She pulled open the edges. "Do you want me to stop? Or do you want me to go on?" She tugged her underwear strap down off her shoulder, not far enough to really see anything, just far enough to tease me, all the time watching me watch her. "Tell me you don't want it."
The slamming of the car door outside saved me from totally humiliating myself. She laughed and walked away, in the direction of her bedroom.